In sociologist Jennifer Silva’s first book, “Coming Up Short,” she interviewed working-class young adults in Lowell, Mass., and Richmond, Virginia.
Most had a tough time earning decent wages. Many felt like they were in a perpetual state of limbo, unable to reach the traditional markers of adulthood: job, marriage, house, and kids. But Silva was surprised to learn that many blamed themselves for their situations and believed that relying on others could only result in disappointment.
After the book was published, it bothered Silva that she never pressed her subjects further on their politics to see how they might be connected to their worldview.
Beginning in May 2015, Silva started conducting interviews in a once-thriving coal town in central Pennsylvania, which she calls “Coal Brook.” The timing was prescient: A month after she began her research, Donald Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower and announced his candidacy for president. Now, in a new book, “We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America,” she has made working-class politics her focus.
Silva spent over a year interviewing townspeople. She gained their trust, forged relationships, and spent time in their homes and at community meetings. After years of declining prospects under both political parties, some of the townspeople she interviewed were drawn to Trump’s anti-establishment message. But for most, their politics had devolved into an abyss of cynicism that couldn’t even be penetrated by a politician who promised to “fix” everything.
In an interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Silva describes a community that is racially diverse, hardworking and politically aware. But its residents are also deeply distrustful and shoulder immense amounts of pain and alienation.
Can you talk a little bit about what inspired you to study working-class Americans?